Cut a deal for Shalit

Another deliberate provocation by the IDF to derail any chances of a renewed political process with the Palestinians.

Gilad Shalit 298 ch 10 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Gilad Shalit 298 ch 10
(photo credit: Channel 10)
The Olmert-Mubarak summit last week was not only a public relations disaster; it was another missed opportunity for renewing the peace process. On the morning of the summit the main Israeli newspapers headlines spoke of a proposal by President Hosni Mubarak for a summit meeting of the leaders of the "mini-quartet" consisting of Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. Mubarak's idea for moving toward a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process based on the support of the "mini-quartet" is both constructive and practical. Egypt and Jordan have clear self-interest in renewing the peace process and both are extremely familiar with the internal political difficulties in both Israel and Palestine. Egyptian and Jordanian support and encouragement of the Israeli-Palestinian track provides substantial benefits for both Israel and the Palestinians in their own bilateral relations with both states. The Olmert-Mubarak summit was sidetracked by what is perceived to be the direct intervention of the IDF in its premeditated attack in the center of Ramallah at midday on the day of the summit. There was no "ticking bomb" that had to be defused that very minute. It seemed like another deliberate provocation by the army to derail any chances of a renewed political process with the Palestinians. EVEN IF the IDF attack had been successful its impact would have hit hard on the Arab street and would have soured the Olmert-Mubarak summit. It is unlikely that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or even Defense Minister Amir Peretz knew of the planned attack prior to its implementation. This, of course, is not the first time the IDF has succeeded in preventing political progress in peace making. In this case, not only did the IDF attack in Ramallah side-track the possibility of a new political initiative, it also directly damaged the negotiations on the release of Gilad Shalit. The question of who is subordinate to whom, the army or the government, has always been relevant in the peace process. All too often the IDF has acted as an independent agent deciding issues of policy that go far beyond its mandate. Sometimes this is a result of the fact that the army is so much more organized to make decisions than the political echelon, which is all too often either too hesitant or quite the opposite, too hasty. Even prime minister Ehud Barak, who came to politics directly from the army, found that the IDF negated decisions of the government, or worked under a completely different state of mind than the government that was trying to advance peace. REGARDING THE future prisoner release that is expected with the eventual release of Shalit, the government must decide to pay the price of releasing a large number of Palestinian prisoners. It is clear that the military and the security services strongly oppose the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners, and especially those serving long terms "with blood on their hands." Nonetheless, Shalit will not be released without paying the price. The terms of the deal have been known for months, almost from immediately after the kidnapping in June 2006. It seems that among government ministers the realization is dawning that without paying the high price demanded by Hamas there will be no Shalit release. Hamas has indicated its willingness to accept fewer prisoners in exchange for what it calls "higher quality," meaning political prisoners and those serving longer terms. Almost from the very beginning of the kidnapping, in the behind-the-scenes negotiations, Hamas offered to release a video tape of Shalit in exchange for the release of minors and women in prison. The Israeli response was negative, indicating that most of the 400 women and minors in prison were "hard core." Suddenly in the past weeks, Hamas reissued its offer of the video tape. The main reason behind this is anxiety to move the negotiating process forward. There is still resistance on the Israeli side to accepting this offer. Several months ago Hamas indicated a willingness to have a busload of minors and women released to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the mukata in Ramallah. It is not clear today, in the wake of the battles between Fatah and Hamas, if that offer is still relevant. THE SHALIT case remains a bone in the throat of anyone who wants to move the political process forward. Israel will not deal directly with Hamas, and will not agree to release prisoners directly to Hamas. Abbas is not in control of this issue, and dealing directly with him has produced nothing. The Egyptians have been negotiating directly with the Hamas representatives of the kidnappers and have made progress, but the bottom line remains more or less the same - 1,000 Palestinians prisoners, released in stages, is the price Israel will have to paid for Shalit. More than six months have passed since the kidnapping. It is time to bring Gilad home to his family. The public and the government fear that paying such a high price will only encourage more kidnappings. But if Hamas could kidnap more soldiers it would, regardless of what price is paid for Shalit's release. This is a most unfortunate situation, and Israel has little choice. If there was a military option, it would have been taken a long time ago. The Palestinians have succeeded in keeping Shalit's location from the Israelis, and that does not look like changing significantly in the future. In the meantime, the entire region is being held hostage together with the soldier. One Hamas leader told me that he can't understand why Israel is making such a big deal about one soldier. "We have 10,000 Shalits in Israeli prisons, and more are taken every night," he said. We make "such a big deal" about Shalit because that's the kind of society we are. Shalit was sent to serve by the country, and the country feels directly responsible for bringing him home. It is time to pay the price and bring him home. It is time for the army and the security services to stand down and to allow the government to lead us out of this situation. Hamas is willing to deal now for a price that is known; a round of Middle East bazaar bargaining will only prolong the time Shalit remains in captivity. Hamas feels no urgency and is willing to continue to hold Shalit for many more months. The public popularity ratings of Olmert and Peretz will not suffer any more than the current lows, and perhaps bringing Shalit home will even help. But regardless of public opinion, it is now time to do that. The writer is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.